Before getting too excited, Plants vs Zombies 2 is not yet available worldwide. In fact, the game’s official release date has slipped from sometime in July, to much later this year. Popcap made an announcement via a blog post that they’ve decided to do what’s called a “soft launch” in Australia and New Zealand. What Senior Producer Allen Murray alluded to is that they’re wanting to see whether the server infrastructure can handle the stress of many users connected, and how those people will utilize the store features.
I believe it’s this second point that Popcap and EA will be focusing most of their attention. Unlike the original title, Plants vs Zombies 2 is a freemium game. Bureaucracy being what it is, they most likely want to test the waters and see what they can get away with before releasing the game worldwide and creating a poor first-impression on a global scale.
As you’d expect from any Popcap title, the graphics are very slick. An expertly crafted mix of cute, colorful and funny. While almost identical in style to its predecessor, some of the plant and zombie animations have been significantly enhanced. The addition of completely new themed assets found in the later worlds mixes things up nicely.
Plants vs Zombies 2 takes us outside the nicely fenced suburban yard of the first game and thrusts us into the past. Being tempted by some hot sauce the player finds, Crazy Dave finally builds up the courage to eat his taco. In fact, he loves it so much, he wants to go back in time to eat it again. Fortunately, Crazy Dave’s camper van doubles as a talking time machine. Next stop: Ancient Egypt. Hey, don’t look at me, I didn’t write it.
Not a lot has changed from a gameplay perspective either. The player collects sunlight and plants an assortment of offensive and defensive plants to take out wave after wave of zombies, who are all trying to eat your brains. Apart from the addition of a few additional gameplay mechanics, the very successful formula is largely intact.
Each zone has a few new zombie types themed around the levels in which they are contained. In ancient Egypt, for example, you’ll find an archaeologist zombie carrying a torch that can burn plants instantly and a sun god zombie who steals sunlight that the player doesn’t immediately pick up.
In order to reach the subsequent pirate themed and wild west levels, the player has to not only complete the final level from the previous world but also collect all of the bonus stars available. These stars can only be earned from beating challenge levels which lay down hefty completion requirements and come with a significant increase in difficulty. Of course, those wanting to skip ahead without completing the requirements can unlock each worlds by paying $5.
The original Plants vs Zombies came under scrutiny for being a little too easy. This has been well and truly addressed in the sequel, but in this case, they may have gone a bit too far. By around the 7th level in the first world, players not using any of the available boosts are going to have a real tough time. It seems like Popcap has tuned the game to such a degree, that boosts feel more like a necessity than a fun option. This is exacerbated when playing through the challenge levels. I simply couldn’t complete some of these without boosts due to the harsh constraints.
There are several boost types available. First of all, you’ve got plant food, which dramatically alters the behavior of one of your plants for a very short time. For example, if you use it on a standard pea shooter, it will turn into a Gatling repeater. Used on a Wall-nut, it’ll gain a nice little suit of armor and used on a sunflower, it will produce extra sunlight for a short time. Fortunately, plant food can be obtained in-game by killing zombies that glow green. Those impatient (or desperate) can spend in-game currency to buy more.
The other one-off boosts, however, can only be purchased with in-game currency and provide the player with almost godlike powers. With these, you can crush the heads of any zombie with a pinch gesture, remove zombies entirely by flinging them off the screen or zapping them to a crisp by dragging your finger around. They’re not cheap and, as you’ll find, are sometimes necessary.
Unfortunately, this isn’t where the in-app purchases end. In addition to purchasable coin packs ranging in price right up to $50, a few of the plant types (including some of my personal favorites) aren’t available at all unless you purchase them. Like the slowing effect of the Snow Pea? 3 bucks. Reminisce about setting peas on fire for added damage thanks to Torchwood? 3 bucks. Squashing enemies with the aptly named Squash? You guessed it, 3 bucks.
There are a few permanent upgrades available in the form of an extra sun when digging up plants, bonus starting sun, an extra seed slot and so on. These are $2 each so it’s quite easy to see the struggling, yet addicted player spending quite a bit of real-world money.
Oh, I almost forgot. Some of levels within each world are blocked off by a door requiring a certain number of keys. These keys are random drops and quite rare, meaning the player will have to play levels over and over in order to obtain these. Unless you want to pay to skip this step, it’s not really a choice either, given that it’s a requirement to complete all of the stages in order earn all the stars required to progress.
To a user new to the franchise, the in-app purchases of Plants vs Zombies 2 may seem acceptable for a freemium title. To the seasoned player, however, the tactics used in this first-run version may range from seeming mildly frustrating to downright unfair. Then of course, there’s the question of the difficulty of the game. Has the game been made intentionally too difficult? It’s entirely possible that the game could be completed without the use of purchased boosts by those with the quickest of reflexes and strategic perfection. I mean, I’d consider myself quite good at the original and I can honestly say that I do not (and will not) fit into that category.
Ultimately, we’ll have to wait until the worldwide release of the game before passing final judgment. As it stands, the monetary systems in place seem extremely heavy handed and could very well turn off the average player. Users can be fickle and we’ve recently seen a few high-profile instances of consumer outcry defeating corporate stranglehold. It’ll be interesting to see what will happen once the game is officially released and what adjustments (if any) were made.
[UPDATE] Since the writing of this review, an in-app update was pushed that drastically lowered the number of the required stars to progress to the next worlds from 40 (all of the stars in a given world) to 15. This change greatly alters a few of the major concerns listed above. Things are sure to change further as we near worldwide release.